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Can Usher Turn America On Again (to R.&B.)?


Part of Usher’s appeal has been his beguiling interpretation of manhood’s many transitions, from tween boy to hormonal adolescent to fresh-faced Adonis. Usher says he serves “a very specific purpose” in the public imagination, adding, “it involves sexuality, fantasy and masculinity.” In Vegas, he flaunted a kind of virility that made space for the devoted women who had come to watch him work. “And the only thing that’s coming beside me out this situation is you waiting to get some more,” he sang. The crowd objectified him, adored him. He spun, leaped, skated and played a patron at a strip club handing out dollar bills. During “Nice & Slow,” he mimed humping a mic stand and traced a trail down his abs that led to the inside of his leather pants. At one point, he drenched himself with water. In one libidinous set piece after another, he sighed, and cried, and fell to his knees, lying on his back in a fit of ecstasy. In the end, he was born again, closing the show with a frenetic E.D.M. set. The shrieks from the audience sustained him. “I need you to be excited,” he told me, of his reliance on this kind of nonverbal call-and-response. “I want you to scream.” And did they scream.

Before he was a legacy artist, modeling Black masculinity for millions; before the accolades and the clamoring women; before the epic albums confessing his sins, Usher was a child prodigy born in Texas and raised in the hills of Tennessee. Usher Raymond IV began singing in the youth choir of the St. Elmo Missionary Baptist Church in Chattanooga as a very little kid. His mother, Jonnetta O’Neal Patton, who raised him largely on her own, was the choir’s director. “He would sit with his grandfather during devotion, and he would lead songs with the older deacons,” Patton told me. “And then he would sing in my choir. People would request for this little kid to sing.”

She entered him into talent shows, which he won. She quit her job and moved them two hours southeast to Atlanta. It was just a few years after the producer Antonio Reid (who is known by the nickname L.A.) and Babyface started LaFace Records in a suburb just north of the city. Before long, Usher was auditioning for Reid.

In his memoir, “Sing to Me: My Story of Making Music, Finding Magic and Searching for Who’s Next,” Reid writes that he was reluctant to audition a child performer. But Usher’s confidence and charisma were preternatural, and Reid liked the way he sang a well-known cut — Boyz II Men’s “End of the Road” — but made it his own. Reid called in all the women in the office. The 13-year-old singer worked the room without a mic and focused in on one woman in particular. He “dropped to his knee in front of her, singing, placing his hand on her thigh, looking dead in her eyes,” Reid writes. “He was seducing her with the confidence of someone who had done it before.” Reid signed Usher on the spot.

“Usher,” his namesake debut, premiered near the bottom of the album charts, though its handful of singles earned good airplay on Black radio. Usher’s second album, “My Way,” was a breakthrough. Soon there were magazine covers and a recurring role on Brandy’s sitcom, “Moesha.” “8701,” his much-anticipated third album, dropped in the summer of 2001 and entered the pop chart at No. 4. It earned Usher his first Grammy, for R.&B. vocal performance, and set the stage for his magnum opus, “Confessions.”



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